To negotiate with the Taliban, bring women to the table

An Afghan burqa-clad woman walks in a market where birds are sold in Kabul city, on Oct. 31, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Bobby Ghosh Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Two and a half months since the fall of Kabul, the international community has yet to figure out how to stop Afghanistan’s new masters from imposing harsh restrictions on women’s freedoms. Yet one shift in the way negotiators handle their dealings with the Taliban would go a long way toward holding the regime accountable.

Having promised to make the Taliban stick to their promises of inclusivity, the Biden administration is under pressure to make the resumption of American aid conditional on the protection of women’s rights. The issue also is routinely raised by delegations from foreign governments, the United Nations and aid agencies that have made their way to Kabul since mid-August, seeking reassurances that the new regime won’t go back on its word.

It isn’t only the liberal West that sees the Taliban’s treatment of women as an early indicator of how the Taliban will rule. Even China, perhaps the most eager of the world powers to do business with the regime, has admonished the Taliban’s leaders to preserve women’s rights.

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But with so few women present for these high-stakes discussions, the Taliban might wonder whether they need to take these exhortations seriously. The gender bias has been so noticeable that the advocacy group Human Rights Watch has been keeping a running Twitter thread of all-male missions that arrive to press the former militants on humanitarian and other matters.

The absence of women in these discussions would be unconscionable at any time and under all circumstances, but especially now and in dealings with a deeply misogynistic regime. More than words, the Taliban should be given constant demonstration of the norms of the international community they say they want to join.

This can be accomplished with two simple measures.

First, women should comprise at least half of every foreign delegation to Kabul. At every possible opportunity, the lead interlocutor or negotiator should be a woman. Every time a Taliban leader sits across the table from visitors, he should see and experience what most of world agrees is a woman’s rightful place. The standard this will set is a necessary precondition to any meaningful change in attitude.

Second, every foreign delegation calling on the Taliban to discuss international aid should insist that there be women at the other side of the table. This will force the Taliban to look beyond its own ranks for representation, another necessary prerequisite for change. It isn’t enough to make the restoration of international support and investment conditional on how women are treated. Women must be actively be involved in the negotiations, so they can help set the terms for how aid will be administered.

The same conditions should apply to any Taliban delegation traveling abroad.

The Taliban will likely balk at these requirements at first, but they can ill afford to refuse: 80% of the last Afghan budget was funded by the U.S. and other donors. Taliban leaders might claim that exposing women to strangers is contrary to their faith or culture, but these specious arguments are easily countered by the example of other deeply conservative societies that are dropping many gender restrictions.

One challenge to this approach will be ensuring that the international community lines up behind it. Yet the virtue is self-evident, and it should be well within the ability of the Biden administration to rally global opinion. Vice President Kamala Harris, who has pledged U.S. support for Afghan women, has the stature to lead on this issue.

Unanimity among foreign groups would be ideal, but it isn’t essential. It will suffice if the most visible Western governments and multilateral organizations like the U.N. insist on having women literally at the table when talking to the Taliban. Any nation or organization that breaks ranks should then be called out — and obliged to explain why its rhetoric about women’s rights isn’t matched by its actions.

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ABOUT THE WRITER
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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